Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Writing Game: Placebos

A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’  Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo.  ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.

But so much for the joke.  A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up.  A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures.  And it’s not just health.  The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time.  A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels.  Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat.  But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.

So, my question is this.  What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of?  What would you find yourself able to do?

For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.

The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters.  No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me.  And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is.  A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose.  Characters who had both humour and suffering.  A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.

As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting.  Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really).  And certainly there were insights.  Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character.  So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross.  I put it back the way it was.

What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques.  It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.

Lit Crit: Tale of Two Cities – The Women

One of my favourite stories in the Bible was the Tower of Babel.  The human race builds a tower that threatens to reach heaven, so God divides them, first by language, then by nation.  It is that very division that, figuratively, prevents them from reaching the higher states.  For language and nation read any division between individuals: race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.  We look at each other as if through a glass wall, sometimes forgetting it is there.  When a writer attempts to create a character that is beyond their own experience, you can sometimes hear the sound of them knocking up against it.

By the way, I should say that there are spoilers in this, but given the famous last line, the experience of reading TTC is a little like Owen Meany.  You know what is going to happen and when, the only mystery is how.  As soon as the dissolute Sydney Carton hoves in to view, you just think, right then.

Sydney Carton is also a clue to the first type of woman.  He is much given to speech making and you can’t help thinking that if it were a stage play then this was the part Dickens would have cast himself in.  Lucy Manette is a classic stage heroine.  An embodiment of duty who stays by her father’s side for a considerable part of the novel, before standing by her husband’s side for the rest.  She acts as a moral compass for other characters, as well as the novel itself.  She is quite explicit in this:

‘…can I not save you, Mr Carton?  Can I not recall you – forgive me again! – to a better course?’

You can imagine the two of them: her seated, him clapping the back of his hand to his forehead as he strides back and forth.

It’s the sort of Dickens character that to a modern audience most often sticks in the throat:

‘She had been true to her duties.  She was truest to them in the season of trial, as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.’

But, and I’ll come back to this, she is incredibly determined.  Even at their most saintly, his characters cannot help having great vitality.

Her opposite is the Monster.  I don’t think (and I’m happy to be corrected on this) that I can think of another of his novels where the women are so clearly the villains.  There are two in particular.  Madame Defarge is a woman with far greater energy for the revolution than her husband, who becomes no more than one of the many anonymous ‘Jacques’.

‘”To me, women!” cried madame the wife.  “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!”  And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

And check this out:

‘Suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife – long ready – hewed off his head.’

Hoorah!  Dickens has a go at trying to explain her motivation, but it doesn’t quite come off:

There were many women at that time upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand, but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets.

The second villain is the woman known only as The Vengeance.

‘One of the sisterhood knitted beside her.  The short, rather plump wife of a starved grocer, and the mother of two withal, this lieutenant had already earned the complimentary name of The Vengeance.’

Note the implication, in her comparative size, that she puts herself before her husband.  Also, the mention of ‘the sisterhood.’  As if such a thing is anathema.

Clearly, both these characters are set up as a contrast to the saintly Lucy Manette.

There is also the image of the knitting.  Rather like Mrs Haversham’s wedding dress, Dickens takes a supposed symbol of femininity and presents it out of context to produce an image of horror.  Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and several other women sit in a line and knit in front of the guillotine as the hundreds of heads roll.  And, whatever you may think of the politics, it works as well as any Stephen King vampire floating outside the window.

There is one more villainous woman, of course:

The “sharp female newly born, and called La Guillotine,”

Perhaps this explains the prominence of the villainous women.  Everything is inverted and ‘wrong’ in this new society.  From the sexual politics to the method of execution.

The next type of character is the worthy-but-weird one.  In this case, Miss Pross.  Like Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, she is a single woman who acts as a support for the lead character.  It is she who finally defeats Madam Defarge, after a fantastic bit of stagey dialogue:

“You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” said Miss Pross, in her breathing.  “Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me.  I am an Englishwoman.”

Hoorah again.

Then there is Mrs Cruncher, another sort of character that is difficult for modern audiences to read: the passive victim of abuse.  There’s a great story quoted at the start of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography of how the young Dickens went out of his way, when on a jury, to defend a woman who was a clear victim of injustice.  He knew what was going on around him, and did what he could to stop it (though perhaps not so effectively in his personal life).  His depiction of Mr Cruncher’s abuse is unflinching:

…holding Mrs Cruncher by the ears, and knocking the back of her head against the head board of the bed

The problem is that he can’t help making her into a comedy character.  She is always described as ‘flopping about’.  The effect is somewhere between a Gillray cartoon and a Punch and Judy show, and the suspicion is that he’s trying to get a laugh.

Finally, there is the surprise female character.  Someone who doesn’t quite fit the writer-from-another-age image that he sometimes gets.  Lady Dedlock in Bleak House is one: an apparently compassionless woman with a hidden past.  In TTC it comes right at the end.  As Sydney Carton is facing his fate, he is approached by a small girl who asks to hold his hand.  She is convinced of the rightness of the revolution for the benefit of the poor and is just confused why it should be necessary to cut off her head.  It should be a one-line joke, but instead she comes across as very real.  It’s a character that predicts Boxer in Animal Farm.

Oddly, Dickens succeeds in his depiction of women where many modern dramatists fail.  To adopt the famous Bechdel questions:  is there more than one named (major) female character?  Yes.  Do they talk to one another?  Yes.  Do they talk about something other than men?  Yes.  And, as far as I know, even the lauded Nordic TV dramas have not finished with a hand-to-hand fight to the death between two women.

Having said that, Dickens is one of those writers who very clearly bangs up against the glass wall in creating his female characters.  He observes them but only on rare occasions do they get a believable sense of inner life.  What they do have, however, is energy and distinctiveness – even Lucy Manette has to fight for her own identity, and each character in the novel is distinct from the others.  Good or bad, weird or innocent, they move around the world in a way that holds the attention.

Character: Altered Ego

Early in The Girl Who Played With Fire Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea.  She buys ‘two Karlanda sofas with sand-coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs’ and at least five other tables.  There is something so fascinating about the character that for me she could have carried on to Lidl and I’d still have been wondering what she was going to buy.  Soon after, she disappears for most of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist takes over and the novel goes flat.

Blomkvist is a cypher for the author Steig Larson.  By rights he should be interesting: a campaigning journalist risking his life to get to the story and bring the baddies to justice.  But he’s not.

Why is it so difficult to write an interesting character that is based on yourself?  It is, after all, the easiest way to create one: just walk yourself through the action.  The trouble is that the result is often unsatisfactory.  Even Dickens seems to have struggled with this.  Some of the male leads in his later novels suffer from a sort of flatness: John Jarndyce (Bleak House), Arthur Clenham (Little Dorrit), John Harmon (Our Mutual Friend), are melancholic do-gooders, and contrast with more interesting leads like Pickwick, Oliver Twist or Scrooge.

When you set out to write a character based on yourself it is a little like sitting inside a washing machine: thoughts, experiences, feelings, opinions, churn around you, and the character can end up as a confused version of what you think of yourself.  Those that you regard as different are much easier.  You are now outside the washing machine and distance brings perspective.  You can point and say, ‘Look! shirt, socks, pants.’

Any character is likely to reflect some aspect of its author.  But with characters-at-a-distance, it may only be a single aspect; a shard in which, if you look hard enough, you might see a likeness.

One of the things that makes Silence of the Lambs so interesting is there are two great characters: Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector.  For her the interest is always, how is this person from such tortured beginnings going to solve a case with so many people getting in her way?  For him, it’s who is this person?  Tell me the details of how he lives in his flat in Italy; tell me what it’s like when he has to sit next to a noisy, smelly kid on a crowded flight.   Most of all, tell me what happens every time the two of them meet.

I think it is fairly safe to assume that Thomas Harris is neither a young ambitious woman nor a psychopathic cannibal.  But perhaps that very distance enabled him to create characters that reflected some aspect of his own psyche without the character getting overwhelmed by it.

One of my favourite Dickens’ characters is Bradley Headstone in Bleak House.  He is murderous jealousy personified.  It is a weighty, lumbering emotion, summed up perfectly in the name.  The way he is written turns him from a standard villain to someone whose own suffering brings a degree of empathy.  Dickens biographies suggest that he could be subject to such feelings.

As ever, I’m trying to work out an issue that I’m facing in my writing.  On two occasions, agents have commented that they liked the elderly woman in my second novel, but not the man.  And that’s the one that’s based on me.  The main character in my current novel is also based on me.  So how do I save them from being flat?

The subject of another post, I think.  But, in the meantime, if you have any ideas let me know.

Writing Fiction: In Praise of Writers’ Groups

I have a friend who was convinced that there was no point in showing his writing to anyone other than an agent/publisher, and that was only in order to get it in print.  A mutual friend was allowed to read a piece he had written and said subsequently, ‘He’s not good at taking feedback is he?’

At this point, given the title of this post, I should be able to say that he never got anywhere.  Instead of which he has had a book published and had at least two plays on the radio.

Some people are naturally introverted.  I don’t think Jane Austen was in a writers’ group – by one account, she used to hide her writing under her embroidery if anyone came into the room.  Charles Dickens, on the other hand, was always reading his stuff out to people (there is a famous sketch of him reading one of his Christmas stories out to his friends).

I spend a lot of time writing on my own, but I really like getting feedback from the two writers’ groups I attend.  Sometimes they just see things I can’t.

My general rule is that if only one person in the group makes a particular observation then it is up to me to decide whether or not to go with it.  If everyone is saying the same thing, it’s probably time to listen.  I showed my synopsis to a couple of writer-friends recently, and both of them had written ‘why?’ in various places in the plot, and both agreed that it was thin.  It led to the breakthrough that I experienced on retreat (see ‘Meditation 2’).

The best sort of feedback for me is, ‘This does work’ or, ‘This doesn’t work’.  In this way I get a general idea of how it is coming across and it is left to me to come up with a solution.  The sort that isn’t so good is the, ‘What you should do is…’  Usually because they are starting to write their own novel out of it.  Having said that, posed as a question, ‘Have you thought of…’ can be helpful.

The first synopsis I ever wrote was roundly rejected by my novel writing class.  Except for one thing, a station attendant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name.  A Western character in the midst of a modern-day setting.  I took the synopsis to another friend, who agreed with the class, right down to the Western character.  And then she said, ‘Have you ever thought of making the whole thing like that?’  And that’s what it ended up as: a modern-day setting and all the characters unknowingly playing the parts of the usual Western stereotypes.  Perhaps not the best thing I’ve ever written, but great fun to write.

Writing Fiction: Altered States

Sorry, I just had a vision of William Hurt suspended upside down with snakes on his face and various flashing lights, but that isn’t what this is about at all, and anyway, that’s Ken Russell for you.

What I was actually thinking about is how often an altered state of mind can help in writing fiction.  In 2009 I was on a meditation retreat in Italy.  At the time I had been working on my second novel.  It was going ok but the plot lacked something dynamic.  I had put all thoughts of writing aside for the retreat and was meditating one day in the lovely converted chapel which was our shrine.  Suddenly, unbidden, the solution to the main plot problem came into my mind.  Even afterwards it seemed perfect (and does to this day) but I hadn’t sought it, if anything I was probably battling the pain in my knees.

And this wasn’t the only time.  Often in my morning meditation, a sentence that I have written the day before will be presented to me in a better form (and then there is the battle of whether to write it down or continue meditating)

There was a fashion in the 60s and 70s, of thinking that the only real writers were drunk ones and that getting pissed or high on drugs was the best way to access the inner writing daemon.  A quote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives in a recent article in The Guardian described how drunk Ben Jonson was whenever he sat down to write: “He would many times exceed in drinke (Canarie was his beloved liquour); then he would tumble home to bed and, when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie.’  I’ve tried this but my handwriting got so bad I couldn’t even read it after, (but I’m sure it was genius).

Charles Dickens used to go for a good old-fashioned walk: pounding the heath and talking to the various characters in his head.  Stephen King listens to loud heavy metal music.  Jenny Colgan suggests having a bath (it wasn’t personal).

I guess this is all just another way of talking about accessing a ‘muse’.  It doesn’t seem to be something that can be forced.  Occasionally I’ll find that while writing I can see the next few sentences ahead of me and there is a race to get them down in time.  The sensation is a little like being in a trance.  For the most part, however, it’s just good old plodding along putting one word in front of another.